Veteran vignettes: Reviewing Chahbazian’s documentary “Notre Village”5 min read
Shot in Nagorno-Karabakh and produced in Belgium, Comes Chahbazian’s Notre Village (2022) is a quiet and painful reflection on rural life amid unresolved conflict. The hour-long documentary film is divided into two parts. The first provides vignettes of the everyday lives of veterans in the village of Mets Taghlar, while the short second part captures the impact of the Second Karabakh War, which displaced all of the village’s inhabitants.
Notre Village was filmed from 2017 to 2021, and was first shown in Armenia in the summer of 2022. The screening was an emotional moment, Chahbazian explains in a recent interview. It brought together his Armenian cast in one place, many of whom had not seen each other since the second war in 2020. The film premiered in Belgium in April 2023 at the Millenium International Documentary Film Festival in Brussels, and won the Jean Vigo prize for Best Director at the Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival of Navarra, Spain.
Volunteers taking up arms
Chahbazian’s film uses long shots, a mix of close-ups and wide angles, to portray a timeless vision of life in the green mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh. Men fell trees, take a plunge in the river, handle a beehive, crack freshly picked hazelnuts, slaughter a pig; a nurse fills a syringe; a boy plays with a broom.
The men we meet in the film tell us stories of their military service in self-defence units (jokats or djogads) during the First Karabakh War. “We were all volunteers,” one villager says. “There was no other possible course.” Another says: “History forced us to take up arms. Our generation had to sacrifice itself.”
In the early stages of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh more than three decades ago, anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan set in motion the rapid formation of highly committed but poorly armed volunteer groups of fifteen to a couple dozen men. The fighters started out with hunting rifles, but took advantage of the crumbling corrupt Soviet state to acquire weapons from all sorts of sources across the region. Military training was a matter of learning by doing.
Notre Village does not shy from the harsh reality of war. “As I was going down to the river,” says one of Chahbazian’s interlocutors, “I saw two Azerbaijani soldiers. I shot them down. Then I heard shots, and got back to the village without being wounded. In the village, everyone was talking about it. Nobody knew I was the one who did it. I didn’t say a word to anyone. I was 15.” The experience of war shaped a generation of veterans, encompassing not only grown men but also children.
Life amid “peacelessness”
The film’s interviews match academic research conducted by Aude Merlin and Taline Papazian on Armenian volunteer fighters. With the notion of “peacelessness,” Merlin and Papazian capture the constant background presence of war in the ordinary life of Armenian veterans in ‘mainland’ Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh alike. In the absence of open fighting, the veterans’ life choices – personal and professional – are nevertheless shaped by their experience of war. A “psychological state of alert” compels them to always prepare for the next military peak.
The facial expressions of the former combatants interviewed in Notre Village reveal that their lives have been forever marked by war. Everyone has lost friends and relatives. One man describes the deaths in the community as life works which have remained unfinished. There was no time for fear in wartime, explains the local nurse. “It was after the war that I began to be afraid. Afraid of what I had witnessed.”
A painful sense of silence transpires throughout the film. Born and raised in Beirut during the civil war in Lebanon, Chahbazian does not romanticise war. War and its aftermath produce “a state of infinite mourning from which we never emerge,” says the director. “There’s always something foul about war, even on your own side. There will always be people who take advantage of the situation while others commit their body and soul.”
Second Karabakh War
In the 1990s, the inhabitants of Mets Taghlar sensed the danger of losing everything. They were protecting their land, their memories, their monuments, and their landscape, as one local describes it. But in spite of the permanent state of alert in the community, the return of full-scale war in 2020 came as a surprise.
Some of the interviewed men took up arms again. All of them were displaced, as the Armenian forces were defeated and the Hadrut district of Nagorno-Karabakh came under Azerbaijan’s control. Historical monuments in the village have been bulldozed to make way for the construction of a road connecting Fizuli and Shusha.
Director Chahbazian makes interesting use of drone footage to include this painful episode of the Armenian village’s most recent history in his film. Zooming in, we can distinguish construction vehicles, and Turkish and Azerbaijani flags. However, no Azerbaijani faces or voices are present.
The absence of Azerbaijani narratives and grievances provides a one-sided perspective, and could be problematic if this film was all that an outsider would watch or read about Karabakh. Nevertheless, it would be misguided to suggest that any documentary of any given armed conflict would have to inquire into the lives, narratives, and emotions of ‘both sides’. Notre Village is deliberately not a didactic or comprehensive introduction to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and illuminates a particular perspective with a deep sense of empathy.
In the two last scenes of Notre Village, a brass band plays a song by Soviet-Armenian composer Arno Babajanyan, and young soldiers look across the new frontline. Peacelessness persists.